May. 14, 2013 — The future can be sly. We expect to wake up one day and suddenly have jetpacks and sentient robots trying to kill us. But as often as not the technology of the future comes at us slowly, incrementally. So it’s no great surprise when it finally arrives. When it does, it’s almost as if it’s been with us all along. We’re seeing this with “cars of the future.” While much of the world has been focusing on the tremendous strides in autonomous driving — and they are tremendous; see here and here — a quiet revolution has been under way in the auto industry otherwise. Optics and other technologies are already making cars smarter, more efficient and generally just a little bit cooler. Perhaps the most obvious example of cars getting smarter is the evermore sophisticated navigation systems we’re seeing. In a paper to be presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Beijing in August, for example, researchers within MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory will describe hi-tech systems they’re developing that will allow drivers and cars to work together to plan routes and schedules. Here, the driver might tell the car that he needs to be home in a half hour to watch “Mad Men” but he wants to stop to pick up his laundry and get takeout along the way. The car will plot the best route — based on traffic, which roads are closed for repairs, etc. — and if the Indian restaurant is too far, for instance, might suggest a Korean restaurant instead. It’s not just navigation systems, though. Researchers have described ranging and imaging systems that will provide continuously updated information about pedestrians and other obstacles drivers might encounter, feeding into 3-D databases that characterize the local environment down to a few centimeters. (We’re already seeing similar, albeit less complex application of ranging systems in the “parking assist” options offered by Mercedes-Benz and other car makers.) At the same time, optical interconnects with other vehicles will tell drivers and their cars when and why the other vehicles are accelerating or braking, for example, enabling “highway trains” with cars traveling close to one another at high speeds. Here, if a car somewhere in the train brakes suddenly, others will slow automatically, leading to reduced congestion and fewer accidents — not to mention increased fuel efficiency. Speaking of which: Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, W. Va., are investigating laser ignition systems as possible replacements for the conventional spark plug (See: Laser Car Ignition Dream Sparks Multiple Approaches). Such systems could improve fuel efficiency while also reducing auto emissions. There are still challenges to be addressed — as it stands, any gains would be largely offset by the cost — but interest in the technology is clearly growing. The first Laser Ignition Conference was held in Yokohama, Japan last month. And finally, what would a car of the future be without a “fire laser beams” option? At the Shanghai auto show earlier this month, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its Concept GLA compact SUV with lasers incorporated into its front headlights — enabling projection of images or video from a smartphone, hard drive or the internet onto a screen or even the road itself (See: Mercedes-Benz Concept Car Has Laser Headlights). Company engineers envision several possible uses for this, including projecting directional arrows onto the road to give pedestrians and other drivers a heads up as to where the tricked-out Mercedes is going. No word yet as to whether the 2015 production version of the vehicle will be equipped with lasers. I suspect, though, it’s only a matter of time.